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This film is very loosely based on the 1941-1942 battles surrounding Tobruk, Libya, which was being defended by British and Australian troops against the German Afrika Korps, led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. The film does distort actual events, timelines and strategies, however. A May 1952 Los Angeles Herald Express news item reported that Henry Hathaway would direct the picture, with Richard Boone set for the cast. An April 1952 Los Angeles Examiner article announced that Gen. Claude Auchinleck would be acting as a technical advisor on the picture, but the extent of his contribution to the completed film, if any, has not been determined. Hollywood Reporter news items include Jerry Martin and Bela Kovac in the cast, but their appearance in the released picture has not been confirmed. A Hollywood Reporter news item also includes Willis Bouchey in the cast, but he was not seen in the viewed print. As noted by Hollywood Reporter news items, the film was partially shot on location in Borrego Springs, CA.
As numerous contemporary sources pointed out, The Desert Rats was a "follow-up" to the 1952 Twentieth Century-Fox production The Desert Fox, which received widespread criticism for its sympathetic portrayal of Rommel. The Variety reviewer called the 1953 film a "sort of antidote to the previous film's glorification" of Rommel, and the New York Times critic termed The Desert Rats "a frank apology for a blunder of two seasons ago." As noted by some sources, Englishman James Mason, who played Rommel in both films, speaks with a heavy German accent in The Desert Rats, whereas in The Desert Fox, he speaks in his normal voice.
According to a January 13, 1954 Variety article, although The Desert Fox was well received in Egypt, The Desert Rats was banned from exhibition there, presumably because of anti-British feelings. Richard Murphy received an Academy Award nomination for Best Story and Screenplay for his work on The Desert Rats. Actor Chips Rafferty also appeared in an Australian production about "the desert rats," entitled The Rats of Tobruk, which was directed by Charles Chauvel and co-starred Peter Finch. That film was released in Australia in 1944 and in the United States in 1951. In 1967, Universal released Tobruk, which was directed by Arthur Hiller and starred Rock Hudson and George Peppard.